Man and woman in shiny green shirts and shorts face each other in front of a big neon sign which says WELCOME. Compagnie La PP (Romane Peytavin and Pierre Piton) in Farewell Body.


Swiss Dance Days 2022

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Compagnie La PP (Romane Peytavin and Pierre Piton) in Farewell Body. Photo © Gregory Batardon
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The Swiss dance platform is a cocktail of art, culture and dance… but which mixes hit the spot for Charles A. Catherine?

Created in 1996 and co-organised by RESO – Dance Network Switzerland since 2006, Swiss Dance Days promotes Swiss artists both inside and outside their mountainous country. The event takes place every two years in a different city – the Covid-delayed 11th edition happened in Basel, world famous for its contemporary art fairs. Some 150 professionals from all over Europe attended the meetings and performances, among thousands of locals, attracted by the promised vibrant cultural scene on stage. This year’s selection focused on creations dealing with identity and gender, proving that the Swiss deal with the same issues as everyone else. Among the twelve performances of the programme, you could find famous heads such as Marco Berrettini and Foofwa d’Immobilité as well as fresh blood such as Clara Delorme and Marc Oosterhoff.

In the festival lounge at the Kaserne, dance professionals of all kinds could trumpet their achievements and give their opinions on the works they had just seen or were about to see. Sipping a glass of local wine, you could consider all the works presented and start feeling the energy. Two creations especially left their mark on me. The first was Jeremy Nedd and Impilo Mapantsula’s The Ecstatic. For sure, there is a trend for ‘ethnic’ dances and/or ghetto subcultures reshaped by contemporary composition, but by mixing the fascinating footwork of the South African pantsula dance and the praise break of African-American gospel in a non-narrative street ceremony, The Ecstatic revitalised the audience – and blew our minds. Pure dance with six intense performers, no overthinking to reach some poetical dimension, a cool attitude: we were definitely thrilled.

Jeremy Nedd and Impilo Mapantsula: The Ecstatic

The second was Tabea Martin’s Forever. Three young men and two young women talk and dance about death – because they can’t die, condemned to eternal life. The stage is covered with white material, huge white balloons in the back, and, suspended, smaller white balls everywhere, a can of tears, a can of blood and a stuffed fox. One by one, they describe what death they’d like, and the more it goes, the more out of control it becomes. Dance slowly prevails over words, and cathartic solos move to powerful unisons. Joyfully trying to die, hilariously unable to succeed, the five dancers use all the props for their purpose. At the end, the stage is devastated, covered with tears and blood, but also with life and death.

Tabea Martin: Forever

So far so good. Connections to gender and identity may not be very obvious, but a few works really reached their point.

In Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows, at Neues Theater am Bahnhof, Rudi van der Merwe brings his inner personality face to face with the context he grew up in. On one hand, the glimmering queer side of a boy empowering his difference. On the other, the dry land of South Africa, its farming traditions, dog worship and male dominance. On stage right, a giant screen on which is shown a documentary mixing poetical wanderings of a man and his dog in the harsh countryside, and interviews with van der Merwe’s family and neighbours telling of the ebb and flow of life. On stage left, the performer and his assistant creating short scenes of drag shows in plain view, to baroque, electro or pop music. The sketches – a queen with nails taped to the floor, a duet of singing divas, a 70s-style glittery singer – symbolically reveal all the glamorous languor the tough environment set off in the young man.

Rudi van der Merwe: Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows

The concept is clever. Slowly, a story appears, the atmosphere getting thicker and thicker. Narratives superimpose, an emotional landscape emerges, like a bittersweet secret. The whole story is very personal, though distorted, but in it you can recognise the roots and scars of every frustrated destiny. Slowly driving from innocent childhood to gangs in prison, the performance tries to avoid the purely autobiographical. The characters van der Merwe creates stand aloof and intense, shimmering and devastated. You can feel their authentic need to express themselves, but the movie behind them and the always returning darkness keep it unsaid. Even the numerous dog stories sound like transpositions of candid lives. The whole performance is a powerful book of stories, even if you spend a lot of time reading subtitles (as you surely don’t understand Afrikaans either). You miss the presence of dance – but in the end, the embodiment is complete.

La PP: Farewell Body

In complete contrast, Farewell Body, the first creation by the young Lausanne-based duet Romane Peytavin and Pierre Piton (compagnie La PP) makes dance the centre of their purpose, pushing the meaning away. They talk of the uncanny valley effect: ‘The more a bionic body seems similar to ours, the more its imperfections appear monstrous.’ While engineers in our cyber era work to make robots look as human as possible, Peytavin and Piton try the opposite: to get rid of their humanity and reach a robotic movement and appearance – though they’re still dancing. When the audience enters the auditorium of the ROXY Birsfelden, the two performers are static, eyes wide open, staring at you like androids. Their pale green outfits glow in the full light. A neon sign says WELCOME. As a strong electronic beat arises, they start to move – not the robot dance, but light, powerful and determined moves, crossing the stage, jumping in rhythm, in separate solos next to one another. They never touch, they never blink, they almost never stop.

Is it aerobics, clubbing, dancing? The technique is discreet but visible. The hands and necks are frozen, the directions are precise, the moves look programmed. At first, you’d say Peytavin and Piton are dancing randomly but the ridiculous moments, the strange feeling that something’s wrong and that incredibly catchy electronic music slowly make you acknowledge that they’re not fully human any more. So you accept their uncanny behaviour and their moments of wandering when they (apparently) don’t know what they’re supposed to do. The dance is vivid, just here to be and to be seen. Are robots just an entertainment? Oh wait. Here they are. As the hour-long show goes on, you realise they’re super-advanced dancing robots.

Kiyan Khoshoie: Grand Écart

Among all these dancing ideas and self-revealing metaphors, we all needed a little analysis. Swiss-Iranian Kiyan Khoshoie brought it with Grand Écart, a 75-minute one-man show mixing French text, English subtitles, and dance displays. He talks about a dancer’s life, playing different roles – a mad choreographer, a rough teacher, an overthinking dancer. It all starts with a back curtain: should it be open or closed? It may appear a detail, but it’s the beginning of a fierce critique. ‘We are architects of space. We accept the penetration of things around us.’ ‘The body takes me to places I don’t know.’ The actual questions that arise in a dancer’s life suddenly sound a little absurd. The audience, mainly dance professionals, begins to laugh. With a great ability to catch your attention, Khoshoie never brags – though he could, given his career – but digs into his topics with acuteness. In a few moves, he reminds us what dance serves: a vision, a moment, a feeling.

What is his point? Dance is a wonderful discipline asking for total commitment and a touch of fantasy. The mixture is like a cocktail served at the Swiss Dance Days lounge: if there’s too much of one ingredient, it gets out of hand. The coach’s crazy talk in Franglais baffles his dancers; the intrusive perfection of the performer inhibits creation; the body and mind-centred practice drives the artist to feel ‘past it’ by the age of 30. You laugh – but you recognise it. As the maelstrom of characters becomes invasive, Khoshoie stops talking and re-enacts all the dance sketches all together, in a delightful concluding sequence. As in standup, he quotes from his own material. You can see he wrote it with an actress, Charlotte Dumartheray: it’s hilarious and witty (if maybe a little long). Enough to question what it is to be in the audience, after having questioned what it is to be on stage.

During these Swiss Dance Days, many artists stared at you to share their thoughts from the stage. Clara Delorme’s shifty gaze in Albâtre brought a breath. The 15-minute piece presents her naked white body in the corner of a square white stage. Nothing more, but that’s already a lot. Her body is a blank page on which you read what you want. She seems fragile but concentrated, offered but unreachable. From the moment you begin to find ‘content’, it isn’t blank any more, so it can stop. Efficient and delightful.

In a few days, the Swiss platform proved that local artists have a great vitality in and an elegant approach to their art. And if the gender and identity questions were not that much answered – or even posed – the shows themselves made an impression on the audiences, already seduced by the city, between legacy and modernity. 

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2–6 February 2022, Basel, Switzerland
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